Total Rewards Asia Summit 2024 Singapore
HR OnScreen: Sehr Ahmed, Global CHRO, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on living with wings while knowing your roots

HR OnScreen: Sehr Ahmed, Global CHRO, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on living with wings while knowing your roots

This HR leader credits her 'global nomad' outlook for being able to develop cultural savviness to make connections. In this video interview, find out why she advises global leaders to "figure out where's home for you" when the time comes.

A self-confessed global nomad, having lived in 10 countries and 12 cities, Sehr Ahmed, Global CHRO, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf brings a global perspective, cultural savvy, and multi-industry experience in leading growth, change, and transformation for global businesses.

In this interview by HRO's Aditi Sharma Kalra, we find out:

  • Why Sehr changed career paths from corporate banking to HR,
  • Values that will never leave her side, no matter how much she grows in her career, and
  • Why leaders must acknowledge their superpowers as much as they recognise the need to stay humble.

Excerpts below, and for the full conversation, head over to the video interview:

Q You started your career as a corporate banker and took on your first HR role 12 years later with ABN AMRO Bank in Pakistan. Tell us how you made that decision which sparked you to change career paths (and yes, we’re glad to have you on the HR side), and also, what are some valuable lessons you learnt in banking that you’re able to leverage in HR?

It's one of those moments in life when something comes out of left field. An opportunity presents itself and you have to just be ready and that's what happened. At that time, ABN AMRO had lost its head of HR to a competitor, and I was tapped on the shoulder by the CEO who called me into his office, and he said to me, would you consider this move into HR, you understand the business, you're good with people and you're strategic.

It (was the moment) when somebody sees something in you. I was ready for change and I said, absolutely. I had two questions, will this move potentially get me out of Pakistan again, because I wanted to build my global career again, and will this get me another way to rise in the company? He said, all that and more - it's a very strategic function. It's greenfield, make it your own.

So I rolled up my sleeves and brought what I do to the table. The business has always loved working with me even if I say so myself because I speak their language. And I understand the challenges, having sat on the other side. What I did was to leverage exactly that. The skills I learned previously that I leveraged in HR were really about understanding the business that you're working with. You can't work in isolation. So being business savvy, and having commercial acumen is essential.

And by the way, HR is all about numbers as well. So it's very quant, but it's also about knowing the softer things like culture. It's a role that leverages the left and the right brain. 

Q One of the important things for you was to continue growing personally and throughout your career, you've risen up the ranks quickly. You've been taking on regional roles and moving across geographies, as well as supporting the workforce wherever they need you. What are some values that guide your career path, values that you cherish and will never leave your side no matter how much you grow in your career?

You are right - I've made two career pivots, one from business to HR and the other one from financial services to the consumer sector. I've done nine cross-border moves, and crossed six industries. And I have taken on progressively more senior roles while raising two kids on my own. I find that was the hardest part of it. I took two children kicking and screaming across borders and they learned one thing - they learned how to deal with change, which is a lesson that always serves you well.

I've always been that person who is attracted to a challenge I would love to be able to solve a problem, and it was usually that kind of mandate that attracted me. It takes risk and you need resilience to take those opportunities because it's going to be tough. There's no question about it. The mandates have typically been about building the credibility of an HR function or driving change, growth, and transformation. I did it time and time again and that's what I then became known as. It became one of my superpowers you know. That's why companies hired me to drive change, growth, and transformation and I became fearless along the way.

Q I'm so glad that you talk about your superpowers as they are. Because a lot of us women leaders, we struggle to really talk about our strengths. We really need more role models like you who are not afraid to show what we are really good at and back ourselves.

Thank you. The other thing I'd say is, know your superpowers but stay humble as well. So it's always a bit of both. There's always learning to be had. You need to go into a new situation with your ears and eyes wide open, learning everything that you need to, and then bring in your talents to start building the change.

This is just a snippet of the full, insight-packed conversation! Listen to the video interview, and find out:

  • What Sehr cherishes the most about being able to stay mobile as a global nomad,
  • The upcoming launch of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf's new space in Singapore, called 'Home Ground', which she says, "It's not an office. It's not the headquarters. It's an experience. It's a cultural exchange.", and,
  • Advice on executive wellbeing and mental health challenges that Sehr's C-suite peers can benefit from, and a whole lot more.

Sehr Ahmed will be speaking at Accelerate HR 2023 on the topic "It’s lonely and stressful at the top: Mental wellness for the C-suite". To attend the event, contact our team here.

Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region!

Free newsletter

Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top Human Resources stories.

We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's Human Resources development – for free.

subscribe now open in new window